In recent weeks, I've had the opportunity to speak with a number of Oiler prospects to discuss their current seasons and their continued development towards hopefully one day wearing an Oiler uniform in the NHL.
In January, Dillon Simpson provided some insight into how his NCAA career, now in its third season. Earlier this month, Jujhar Khaira provided some very candid assessments of his transition from the BCHL to his first year of US College hockey.
Yesterday, I was able to talk to Tobias Rieder, who is enjoying another solid season with the OHL's Kitchener Rangers. Rieder is among the team's top forward prospects outside of pro hockey and recently came in at number #17 in our "Top 25 Under 25" series. Rieder was drafted in the fourth round of the 2011 draft and has thus far been vastly outperforming his draft position.
So, as part of our ongoing effort to inform our readers about the prospects in the Oilers' system, provided below is a transcript of my conversation with Tobias Rieder:
(Author's Note: I'd like to take a moment to personally thank Tobias for answering my questions. He was very personable and his voice conveyed a great deal of genuine enthusiasm. I get the feeling he is a guy who just loves hockey and is thoroughly enjoying his development time in Kitchener.)
Copper & Blue: Before I get into the hockey side of things, I have to ask...how do you like Kitchener. I was born there.
Tobias Rieder: Really? Oh, I love it! It's a great city and I've really enjoyed my time here.
C&B: Yeah, I was born in Waterloo and still have family in the area...
TR: Yeah, my billet family lives in Waterloo too.
C&B: Getting into your hockey career, one of the first things I want to ask is how your game has changed since coming in to the OHL a couple of years ago? Obviously you had the chance to mature a bit physically, but how else has your game evolved and what differences do you notice now as an older player in the league?
TR: When I first got here, I didn't really know what to expect. I had to get used to the hockey over here in Canada, obviously it is a lot faster and more physical with the smaller ice surface. I think over the last two years, I've improved my game in that way. I feel I can play the game at a higher speed and I'm more comfortable getting physical and playing that North American style of hockey. I guess that was the biggest difference and the thing that has changed the most. The hockey is just different here, but I'm used to it now.
C&B: From that standpoint, one of the things that I have to give you a lot of credit for, and I'll admit to not seeing as many Kitchener Ranger games as some people since I don't live in the area anymore, but you seem to have quite a penchant for scoring goals from high-traffic areas. For someone who has had to adjust to the North American game, that's a pretty nice thing to excel at after such a short time playing in Canada. Considering you're not an overly large player, just a bit under 6 feet I believe, how have you found success in the tougher areas of the ice dealing with larger bodied defenders?
TR: Yeah, I think for guys who aren't as big and strong as some of the other guys, I think it is about using your speed and being quick. You've got to use your speed and quickness by turning and spinning away from the defencemen. I think that's really important down low in the corners in the offensive zone, and you can't be scared. If you're a smaller guy and you want to be successful you have to be willing to go into the dirty areas in the corners and out in front of the net. That's where teams score a lot of their goals from and you can't be intimidated to go there if you want to succeed.
C&B: With regard to the Rangers as a team, last year you guys were a pretty imposing offensive team...you guys put a ton of pucks in the back of the net, but this year it seems to have changed a bit...the team has the 4th lowest goals for in the OHL. The team has still been able to find success in spite of that, so how have the coaches managed that change from an offensive-minded philosophy to a more defense-first strategy and how has it affected your game personally?
TR:Um, I think the difference is that last year we made a ton of mistakes with the puck and it eventually caught up to us in the playoffs against London. And I think that this year the focus has been more around getting pucks in deep and playing the game the right way, and I think we're doing a pretty good job of that. We could certainly score more goals but that just hasn't worked out so far yet, but like you said, we've still found ways to be successful. I think we've played really well defensively this season and when we need goals we've found ways to score them at the important times in games.
C&B: How has the change in philosophy impacted your role within the team?
TR: I think that it has improved my play in the defensive zone and the neutral zone and I think that has been an important lesson for me to learn. I've been playing as a centreman too recently, which has been lot different than being a winger, but I think it has improved my game in the defensive zone and neurtal zone.
C&B: Have you been playing in the middle consistently for a while now?
TR: Well, I switched to the middle after the World Juniors. We've had a few injury problems and they wanted to try me as a Centreman and I think it has worked out well.
C&B: Well, from a statistical standpoint, you've had a pretty productive second half, so whatever has changed since the World Juniors seems to be working.
TR: Haha, yeah thanks.
C&B: That segues nicely into my next question, which is about the slow start for both you and the Rangers as a team this season. I think it's fair to say that you got off to a bit of a slower start this year. Is there anything in particular that caused that? Things have been much different lately, but what would you attribute the slow start to?
TR: Yeah, personally I just wasn't playing my best hockey at the beginning of the season and I think it may have had to do with the fact that I had totally new linemates and the chemistry between us just really wasn't there at first like it was with the guys from last season. I think it just took some time to develop. As a team, I think we had a lot of new players and I think we needed some time to grow together as a group. Thankfully in the second half everything has worked out really well.
C&B: You mentioned the lack of chemistry with your new linemates at first. Was the problem related to your ability to gain access to the offensive zone or just not being able to find ways to get pucks on net? What aspect of the game took a little more time for you and your linemates to get coordinated on?
TR: Yeah, I think that stuff was a lot of the problem. We didn't really know where one another were on the ice, which is a common problem with new linemates you've never played with before. Last year was just kind of like, my linemates and I knew where one another would be all the time and this year it just took a little while to figure that stuff out I guess.
C&B: Getting back to your much stronger second half, I think there was a pair of games on January 10th and 11th where you were held pointless in back-to-back nights, but since then you've only had one game where you haven't had at least one point, and you've scored at least one goal in all but three of those games, which is a pretty unbelievable run. What to you attribute that turnaround to? Just that increased familiarity with your linemates as you mentioned, or is it just that you've had a little better luck? Have you done anything differently (other than the move to centre) that you think has led to the improved results?
TR: Um, nothing specific really. Like I said before, I try as hard as I can every single shift to play the best I possibly can. It seems like in some ways I've started getting some of the bounces that I wasn't getting early in the year and yeah, everything with my linemates is working out great now, we've found that really great chemistry we were looking for and everything is just going our way right now.
C&B: Looking at how your coaches have been utilizing you this season. As an older player on the team now, are they throwing you out there against the toughest opposition or starting a lot of shifts in your own end of the ice and doing some of the heavy lifting for your team, or as a skilled forward have they tried to send you out there in places where you're in a better position to generate some offense?
TR: I think they are comfortable putting me out there in any situation now. I think they know that I am capable of playing a solid game in my own end now and that I can also score some goals, so they are putting me out there shorthanded, on the powerplay, or in key situations like the last minute of a game with the goalie pulled, I'm usually one of they guys they consider putting out there whether we're trying to get that tying goal or protect the one goal lead. So really, offensive and defensive situations.
C&B: You mentioned special teams, you obviously get a lot of time on the powerplay considering you have seven goals this season with the man advantage. Can you talk a bit about what kind of role you've been playing on the powerplay?
TR: I'm playing on the half-boards. With Matt Puempel...he's on the goal-line beside the net and we kind of switch back and forth during the play, but pretty much, I'm on the half-boards most of the time.
C&B: You played a significant amount of time on the penalty kill last season and you've mentioned already that you're doing so again this year. How has that part of your game developed over the last couple of seasons?
TR: Yeah, as I said I'm still playing regularly on the penalty kill. I think a lot of the things to learn on the PK are just to read through your opponent's eyes and make sure to have a good active stick and be aggressive. I think that's how you have to play to be successful in the defensive zone, and that's even more important than being effective in the offensive end. So, I've really tried to improve my game in my own end.
C&B: Circling back really quickly to your transition to centre. I wasn't really expecting to ask you this as I don't think I had realized how consistently you've been playing at centre in the second half this year, but given that, I have to ask how you're doing in the face-off circle?
TR: Well, I guess it was alright when I started off. It was certainly a little bit different for me obviously...I don't usually take very many face-offs and then all of a sudden I'm taking them every shift. But I think it is certainly improving. It's something that I'm working on a lot in practice and stuff and it is getting better and better with time.
C&B: I also wanted to ask you about your relationship with the Oilers so far. You've been part of the organization for a couple of seasons now, you've attended a couple of development camps. So, what is your relationship like with the team now and how has it evolved over the last few seasons?
TR: You know, it's really good. They send a lot of scouts down to Kitchener and I'm contact with them either after the games or I'll go out for dinner with them sometimes. So, the contact is there. There's even a home page where the players can talk with their development guys. So far it's been really good.
C&B: Have they given you any indication about what their plans are for you next season since you are eligible to turn pro, or are they just letting you focus on your season in Kitchener?
TR: No, they're just letting me play. I don't really know what's going to happen beyond this season, but they are just letting me play and watching my progress. I'm just trying to do my best and we'll see how everything works out.
C&B: I'm sure that's something that you'll be discussing with them during the summer this year.
TR: Yeah I imagine so.
C&B: For my final question...I've asked this to all of the prospects I talk to...I like to ask this for people that don't get a chance to watch you play regularly for Kitchener, although many people have probably seen you in the World Juniors and during your incredible run through the OHL playoffs last season. Still, for those who haven't seen you play often, to give people an idea of what kind of player you envision yourself being at the NHL level, without asking you to compare yourself to someone who has already had a lot of success at the NHL level, but from a stylistic standpoint, is there a player who could point to and say that he plays a similar style to the game that you play?
TR: You know what? Not really. I just try to be myself and not really take after any person in particular. I try to take the good parts out of as many players as I can. Just learn how they play the game and just mix it all together.
C&B: As an observation, I think a couple of names that come to mind are right within the Oiler organization. Maybe a little bit of Sam Gagner but really more a guy like Eberle because he's not a big player but he's so good with the puck in tight spots.
TR: Well actually that's not bad. I mean Eberle is an amazing player and I would love to be able to play like him, haha. But yes, Eberle isn't the biggest guy either and, uh, just like that I try to use my speed and be really quick and turn away from defencemen and create some room to get pucks to the net.
Rieder has really had a fine season since early January. In his last 15 games he has scored 15g-7a-22p. After a slow start to the season, which was discussed during the interview, he seems to have found the form that made him one of the Oilers' standout prospects of last season. In a year when some prospects are moving up the ladder just by treading water, Rieder seems to be doing everything possible to continue raising his standing within the organization.
On a team with virtually no forward prospects bubbling under the surface right now (beyond those who are already at least part-time NHL players) Rieder appears to be the team's best chance at finding an NHL player at a forward position from within the organization over the next few seasons. He and Jujhar Khaira have easily distinguished themselves as the top of the next generation of forward prospects. I'm anxious to see how his game translates to the pro level given his size and skill set. If he can bring his scoring touch with him to the pros, at the very minimum he'll be able to give the Oilers some flexibility and depth at the forward position which is something sorely lacking at the moment.
It will take some time before he sees an NHL game, but Rieder is once again headed in the right direction. His enthusiasm for the game could be heard in his voice and overall he was just a really pleasant guy to talk to. I really hope that he finds success at the pro level.
Follow Tobias on Twitter @TobiRieder9